Wed, Dec 01, 2004 - Page 9 News List

Honest reporting does not exist

In Ukraine, state ownership or control over the media exerts immense control over political debate

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , Kiev, Ukraine

The most striking, and potentially significant, public rebellion against President Leonid Kuchma and his chosen successor in Nov. 21's contested election began silently.

On the morning of Nov. 25, Natalia Dimitruk, an interpreter for the deaf on the Ukraine's official state UT-1 television, disregarded the anchor's report on Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich's "victory" and, in her small inset on the screen, began to sign something else altogether.

"The results announced by the Central Electoral Commission are rigged," she said in the sign language used in the former Soviet states. "Do not believe them."

She went on to declare that Viktor Yushchenko, the opposition leader, was the country's new president. "I am very disappointed by the fact that I had to interpret lies," she went on. "I will not do it any more. I do not know if you will see me again."

Dimitruk's act of defiance -- which she described in an interview on Sunday as an agonized one -- became part of a growing revolt by a source of Kuchma's political power as important as any other: state television.

In Ukraine, as in Russia and other parts of the former Soviet Union, state ownership or control over the media, especially television, exerts immense control over political debate, shoring up public attitudes not only about the state, but also about the opposition. The state's manipulation of coverage was among the reasons that observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe called the Nov. 21 vote fundamentally unfair.

But in the tumultuous week since the runoff between Yanukovich and Yushchenko ended in accusations of fraud, Kuchma's control over television has showed signs of cracking, raising questions about whether his government can maintain public support behind Yanukovich's election.

More than 200 journalists at UT-1 went on strike Nov. 25 to demand the right to present an objective account of the extraordinary events that have unfolded since the vote, forcing the channel to broadcast a feed from another network before capitulating. Dimitruk walked out of the studio and joined them, protesting coverage that was skewed almost entirely on behalf of Yanukovich's campaign before and after the runoff election.

Journalists at One Plus One -- a private station, but one that hewed closely to Kuchma's point of view -- also rebelled. After its news editor resigned, the channel's director, Oleksandr Rodnyansky, appeared on the air and admitted that the station had been biased on Kuchma's behalf.

"We understand our responsibility for the biased news that the channel has so far been broadcasting under pressure and on orders from various political forces," he said, adding that the station would from that point on guarantee "full and impartial" coverage of the events roiling Ukraine.

Since then the two channels have begun to show what until last week seemed unthinkable: the enormous protests in Kiev that have paralyzed the capital, as well as Yushchenko himself. More important, the images reach across the country, including the east, where Yanukovich's support is strongest, in large part because his is the only view given significant time on state-owned or controlled networks. Channel 5, an independent channel that has become, in effect, the opposition's champion, does not broadcast in most of the east.

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